BOOKS: Sausage-makers and saints; pilgrims or prostitutes; countesses and cowherds: a magnificent study lights up women's lives before 1800
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EVERY now and again a truly spellbinding book crosses the path of the reviewer, testing the average store of hyperbole to the limit. Such a work is Olwen Hufton's The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe 1500-1800. It is long, very long, its sheer bulk (654 pages) making it physically difficult to hold in its hardback edition. Yet I was at pains to find a single passage which I would have wished discarded. A courageous publisher must have felt the same, and Olwen Hufton has been given the space to mix impeccable historical analysis with a narrative style and compassion for the subject of her enquiries which has always made her works a joy to read. It is an enormous subject. Yet one never feels crushed by facts and the book is mercifully free from the jargon which shuts off so many gender and sociological studies from the general reader.

The "prospect before her" is the story of what a female child could expect at every stage of her life in early modern Europe. The mental world awaiting her was scarcely inviting, for the legacy of the Judao-Christian biblical tradition, further refined by St Paul, depicted woman as deceiver, purveyor of original sin to humanity, oversexed and unstable, her only salvation lying in marriage and motherhood. The cult of Mary had been carefully nurtured to present her with the ideal of womanhood (even if an ideal never likely to be achieved). So much is well known, but Hufton reveals the remarkable pervasiveness of the belief that women required controlling, even through the revived classical thought of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and every law code in Protestant and Catholic countries alike. Early modern society frowned on the single woman, outside the controlling influence of family, and widows formed a disproportionate number of those accused in the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. All in all, then, a pretty grim prospect - how did early modern woman cope?

Olwen Hufton is ever the pragmatist. Certainly there were women who prospered, despite their failure to conform to the rules of society; Aphra Behn (1640-89), who made a successful career as an erotic novelist; Arcangela Tarabotti (1604-52), who turned her Venetian convent life into an intellectual think-tank, producing some of the most advanced treatises on woman's rights of the period; Elisabeth Strouven of Maastricht, turning religious convention on its head in the 1620s by acting as confessor to numerous priests; the 16th-century Bess of Hardwicke, an impoverished but intelligent beauty, who through four marriages amassed a fortune and began the construction of Chatsworth. But life was hard for most people in pre-modern Europe, and Hufton is at her best chronicling the lives of those women who just got on with life as best they could.

Marriage was the assumed aim of every young girl, but a dowry was the entrance ticket and even the poor were expected to supply one. For most this could mean up to 12 years in domestic service to acquire enough to bring a cow, a bed and a few items of furniture to the marriage. It was this precariousness of material existence which informed the scale of offences of most European penal codes: a battered wife in France stood a better chance of interesting the police in her case if she could also prove that her husband had sold the marital bed!

The "careers" of these country girls preparing for marriage are evoked in vivid imagery, as are the many pitfalls that could interrupt the acquisition of that all-important dowry. The notebooks of the many young Lyons silkworkers who died of tuberculosis in the Hotels Dieu (hospitals), in which tiny sums earned and expended are carefully noted, are poignant testimony to the fragility of such marriage plans. Yet there were those worse off. A dowry bought some prospect of a good marriage and respect. Those without one were little better than slaves, and for them the convent was a valuable sanctuary. Little wonder that when some women finally found a political voice - as they did, temporarily, and for some fatally, at the time of the French Revolution - the abolition of the dowry system was one of their key demands.

Yet this is no tale of doom and gloom. There are many incidences of truly affectionate marriages and loving parents. To the grief of the parents at a child stillborn was added the Catholic Church's belief in Limbo, a place which was "neither heaven nor hell but an uncomfortable nothingness in which the unshriven wandered returning to haunt the living". Faced with the prospect of never being reunited with the lost child in the afterlife, parents resorted to novel methods of resuscitation, prayed for miracles or pressurised priests to baptise the little body, notwithstanding church rules. Nor did the Protestant churches offer much more consolation to grieving parents, denying them the right to bury the child in the parish cemetery. Baptism was popularly viewed as a magical rite ensuring eternal salvation and the changes introduced by the Reformation in this particular sacrament caused considerable popular distress.

Certainly this book effectively lays to rest the historical belief that parental affection towards children did not exist before the 18th century. Much of this was based on research into the commercialisation of leisure and the appearance of a toy trade in the 1700s. But parents who have watched with amusement the toddler who prefers the wooden spoon and saucepan to the commercial toy will smile in recognition at Olwen Hufton's conclusion: "The child with a nursery of toys is not necessarily more cherished than the one with a peg doll." This book is full of such common-sense observations.

Religion figures prominently in these pages, and the various churches dominated the host of agencies involved in monitoring marriage and child- rearing. Ironically, although Catholicism may have been initially responsible for "constructing" the negative image of women, it proved far more understanding to women who deviated from the model of wife and mother than its Protestant counterparts. Indeed, readers will emerge from this book with a clearer understanding of why continental commentators are so amused by British sex scandals. Take prostitution, for example. The economic reasons for prostitution (notably its role in the girl's accumulation of a dowry) were better understood in Italy than in England, likewise its social purpose. By controlling and containing prostitution to legalised brothels, even compelling the inmates to wear specified dress (the compulsory yellow and scarlet of the Italian cities), virtuous women could be protected from the unwanted advances of the passing traveller or soldier. As a 16th-century Dominican preacher advised the city of Crakow: "common women are tolerated by the Holy Church in order to prevent worse evils."

Although the attitudes of the Catholic Church would change in time - partly in response to the Protestant Reformation's attack on sexual scandals in the Catholic Church itself - Protestant countries before 1800 seem to have been about the worst place for members of the oldest profession to ply their trade. The immediate outcome of the Reformation was closure of municipal brothels. Prostitutes became outlaws and (in England at least) possible subversives. For since Italy had the most highly developed system of legalised prostitution, it fed into Protestant propaganda of Rome as the "harlot woman" and the London prostitute was likely to have the charge of "popery" added to the many others levied against her.

Although Enlightenment writers made sport of Catholicism's supposed control of women through the confessional, Olwen Hufton paints quite another picture. This shows the confessional as actually assisting woman to self- knowledge and the highly ritualised, ceremonial and communitarian life of continental Catholicism providing women with outlets for sociability denied them in society generally. An important avenue for self-development was therefore closed off to women at the Reformation. Certainly Protestantism, as the "religion of the book", set a high value on literacy. There is a visible increase in female literacy in Protestant countries in this period, and England produced an outpouring of female literary talent unmatched by any other country in 18th-century Europe. It also developed respect for the individual, which informed the greater recognition for women in the Protestant sects, Quakerism and eventually Methodism. But, as Anne Laurence concluded in her book Women In England 1500-1760 (1994), the gains were limited to the few, and the loss of that position which pre- Reformation Christianity granted to all levels of women in the community was a high price to pay for such vaunted individualism.

The Counter Reformation took centuries to evolve and women were very generally the losers. But until it forced nuns back into the cloisters by the end of the 18th century, convents performed an important role for continental women. Indeed I found Olwen Hufton's chapter on religious women the most impressive of the book, certain to cause any modern woman recovering from convent education to rethink lingering prejudice. They were attacked by Protestantism as an unnatural inhibition to woman's natural calling to marriage and motherhood. But given the unenviable lot of the single woman in early modern Europe, what emerges from these pages is the convent as a meaningful alternative to marriage, often opening up opportunities for an active social role denied to women in secular life. The Catholic Reformation's new emphasis on "active" Christianity spawned a host of female religious orders like the Ursulines or the Sisters of Charity, who abandoned the cloister to work in the community and in the process developed the first truly female professions. Their success would prompt Florence Nightingale to comment that had they existed in Britain, her efforts would not have been needed.

What strikes one most, however, in this story of western women over three centuries, is how little change occurred in women's lives. Gone was the pursuit of the witch and the terrible, disruptive wars of earlier centuries. But female job profiles hardly changed at all: survival still depended on a host of makeshift economies, and medical developments stepped into the place vacated by Holy Writ in arguing woman's biological inferiority. The range of denunciations used by the French Revolution against the women it sent to the guillotine would have been entirely at home in the Europe of 300 years earlier.

But this is no pessimistic book. A sense of the absurd and a celebration of basic humanity threads through it. It is beautifully written and produced, a joy to read, and though it will stretch the sturdiest of Christmas stockings, anyone fortunate enough to receive it can anticipate hours of reading delight.

! Olwen Hufton's 'The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe Vol I 1500-1800' is published by HarperCollins at pounds 25

! Marianne Elliott is Professor of Modern History at the University of Liverpool and is currently writing 'A History of the Catholics of Ulster'